Five Questions: Crystal B. Lake on Artifacts

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Crystal B. Lake is Professor of English Literature at Wright State University, specialising in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British literature and culture. Her recent work includes an essay on needlework verse (forthcoming in Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain), ‘Hairstory’ (in A Cultural History of Hair in the Enlightenment), ‘Antiquarianism as a Vital Historiography for the Twenty-First Century‘ (in the Wordsworth Circle) and an edited collection on Romantic Antiquarianism (with Noah Heringman, for Romantic Circles). Her exciting new monograph, Artifacts: How We Think and Write About Found Objects, was published in February by Johns Hopkins University Press. In the interview below, we discuss the book’s roots, findings and implications.

1) How did you first become interested in studying antiquarianism?

When I started my graduate studies, I was really interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century representations of ruins. Reading about ruins led me to reading around in antiquarian histories. I’ve since liked to joke that if you’ll stick with an antiquarian history long enough, something weird always happens around page 284—and I, at least, was both delighted and fascinated by how antiquarian histories swerved from “drysasdust” descriptions into curious anecdotes and surprisingly heated debates.

I was probably also primed to have my interests piqued by eighteenth-century antiquaries. I grew up in a log cabin in rural West Virginia on a spot of land where my great-grandparents had also lived in a cabin—just a few miles down the road from a small town where my grandparents ran the only general store for miles and miles. Maintaining and repurposing old things were necessary efficiencies in rural Appalachia, but my father also had what you could call an antiquarian sensibility. As the area’s aging population dwindled, a lot of old things seemed to make their way into our cabin: oil lamps and pocket-watches, quilts and farm equipment, books, fossils, a spinning wheel, a pie safe, a trunk organ—all these scraps of lives once lived. Our cabin was like a museum. My dad died when I was 17 years old, and we sold the cabin along with most of the things in it to pay his medical bills. Even though I don’t have the same zeal for collecting that my father did, I still find myself compelled by old things as aesthetic objects and as byways to the past.

2) In your introduction, you write that ‘we’ve forgotten about most of the old, dirty, rusty, moldy, and broken items—the small bits and bobs whose origins or backstories were unknown and whose worth or meaning was not self-evident—that once called out to so many people’.  What do you think are the most important things we can learn by remembering these unruly artifacts?

For me, one of the biggest takeaways from my research into artifacts is that they can help us to refine our thing theories. More specifically, my book argues that old, dirty, rusty, dusty, moldy, and broken things put pressure on some of the tenets of the new materialisms. Although I’ve been convinced by the new materialists who make the case that objects have agency, I’ve been less convinced by their claims that such agency will translate into meaningful political action. I’m thinking here in particular of something like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which shaped a lot of my thinking as I was finishing Artifacts. Although I agree with so much that Bennett has to say in Vibrant Matter, I don’t share her optimism that attending to objects’ vibrancy will produce the kind of political changes that so many of us want and need. In the book, I conclude that artifacts are “things that do things,” to use Bruno Latour’s well-known phrase, but they don’t do what we expect or call upon them to do—which is usually to provide us with unassailable facts about the past, which is usually also a plea for objects to resolve a political-philosophical debate we’re having in the present. Instead of settling debates, artifacts provoke relays of interpretations and representations as we try to reconstruct their histories or shapes from the fragments that remain. My hope, then, is that artifacts will remind us of the responsibilities that people, rather than things, bear for creating the conditions of the past as well as the present.

3) How did you choose the four kinds of artifact you focus on in your case study chapters (coins, manuscripts, weapons and grave goods)?

Honestly, I don’t feel so much like I chose to focus on coins, manuscripts, weapons and grave goods so much as those were just the objects that I kept finding not only in antiquarian histories but also in descriptions of eighteenth-century collections and popular museums. Searching around in databases and indexes confirmed that coins, manuscripts, weapons, and grave goods preoccupied artifact-enthusiasts throughout the century. I also spent some time poking around in the Society of Antiquaries of London’s museum where I saw firsthand just how many of those four types of items had made their way into the Society’s collection.

There’s a lot of really great scholarship out there about antiquarianism as a methodology and a practice, about the relationships between antiquarianism and natural history, and also about antiquarianism relative to neoclassical connoisseurship. I was having, however, a very “Goldilocks experience” trying to find the book that would explain to me the significance of all the smaller bits and bobs that seemed to start piling up in England beginning in the seventeenth century; nothing that had been written yet seemed just right. I think a lot of scholarly books must get written that way. You end up writing the book you were hoping to read.

4) Your book concludes with an assertion about timeliness: ‘The artifactual form may be particularly responsive […] to political crises and cultural paradigm shifts in which diametrically opposed worldviews become irreconcilable: those moments when two intractable factions appear to be using the same piece of evidence for competing claims, like reading the same book but discovering different stories therein.  For these reasons, artifacts and the kinds of texts that they inspire are likely due for a comeback.’  How might thinking about eighteenth-century experiences of grappling with artifacts help us with the possibilities and the pitfalls of negotiating our own increasingly digital cultural heritage?

That’s a really great question, Matt! A lot of the digital cultural heritage we encounter erases the relationships that exist between people and things. It’s easy to forget that humans are behind every database and digital collection, making decisions and taking actions. I have in mind here not only the people who wrangle the tech but also those people who, throughout history, owned, found, preserved, or identified the texts and objects that we view on our screens. We should be careful, I think, not to get lulled by the plenitude or presentation of the digital into a false sense of security about historical facticity. Whether I’m marvelling or despairing at how much of the past seems to be available to us now online, I try to remember that there’s so much history that’s been—that’s still being—erased and contested. I hope that Artifacts might go some way in helping attune us to the politics of curation and interpretation that our digital cultural heritage often occludes.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m working on two new book projects. One of these is a history of the crafts that early readers made and the consumer goods they customized: things like needleworks, toys and games, personal accessories and interior decorations that either quote from or refer directly to popular texts that were published between 1650 and 1850. The other project I’m working on is a memoir of sorts: a collection of personal essays about growing up in rural Appalachia in the 1980s, organized around key terms in literary criticism. In the meantime, I’m also working on a digital edition of Vetusta Monumenta with Noah Heringman and running The Rambling with Sarah Tindal Kareem.